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Reconciling My Own Privilege

Just as ego is the enemy of servant leadership, privilege is the primary antagonist of equity.

I have long adhered to the principle that those with the most privilege have the greatest responsibility to improve conditions for the rest of us, but maybe I am in the minority, or maybe most of us have never taken the time to reconcile our own privilege. But as this is the foundational step on the journey to doing #thework of eradicating injustices, eliminating inequities, expanding diversity, and enhancing inclusion, please endulge me as I take a trip down memory lane and account for the universal gifts bestowed upon me and how I have used these to make the world a bit better in my own way.

When you understand my story you will understand why I fight so diligently for everyone to be able to be their best selves and live their best lives.

Privilege 1 - Nationality and Timing: Being born in America post the struggle for Civil Rights as an African-American male was extremely fortuitous. The American passport is still one of the most valuable documents in the world allowing access to almost anywhere you can imagine and some places you can't. In my lifetime, the United States is still the only Western country in the world to elect a Black man as President and a Black and Indian woman as Vice-President. And only in this country do we have the freedom to speak out so publically against injustices and inequities that occur, without fear of censure - something many of us may take for granted.

Privilege 2 - Rearing: I was born to loving parents who remained married for 44 years (until my mother passed away in 2020). Back in 1977 (when I was born), the proportion of (married) 2 parent American households for children under 18 was around 80%. As of last year this has eroded to 70%. In the African-American community this number is only 37.9% in 2020 - meaning the majority of African-American children today are raised by a single parent (by contrast 75.5% of white children today come from married two parent households). This means I never experienced the trauma of divorce or the struggles of a single income family. It means my lived experience will always be different compared to anyone raised in a different family arrangement than myself.

Privilege 3 - Stability: My parents were solidly lower middle class (we never owned a home), but we never lived in a housing project, or went hungry. We always had at least one car and I never missed a school lunch for lack of funds. My parents never lost their employment (my father was a chemical engineer and my mother was a social worker and early childood educator). I was a latch key kid, but most nights I went to bed with both parents in the house with me. My parents never drank or smoked and I never dealt with physical or emotional abuse. I didn't have it all but I always had enough - especially love. This created a reservoir of self-confidence and comfort that I brought with me into the world.

Privilege 4 - Gifted: In the 3rd grade I was deemed "gifted" by an aptitude test and got to go to a special school once a week in elementary and junior high school and then experience the best of my high school's academic program. I was never marginalized due to the perception of my lack of intelligence. By contrast I was upheld as a token that black kids too could be admitted into an elite educational track. I attended public schools but these were extremely well funded with excellent teachers and extracurricular programs such as orchestra, marching band, athletics, and other organizations that I fully capitalized on.

Privilege 5 - Straight/Cisgender/Able-Bodied: I've never had to feel the otherness and discomfort of not belonging in my born body or not being mainstream sexually or managing a disability either mental or physical that inhibited my ability to perform basic tasks. And to be honest, if you would have asked me if I considered this area a privilege in the early aughts - I probably wouldn't have known what you were talking about. But, I never had to "come out" or reassign my gender or navigate the obstacle course of everday life or deal with the related fallout from possessing these identities in an ignorant, antipathetic, and unforgiving society. I walked out the door each day and was by and large accepted without having to do the social gymnastics so many of our LGBTQ+ and disabled brothers and sisters have had to survive through just to be themselves.

Privilege 6 - Popularity: Although I didn't come from money, my intellectual acumen and ability with different groups of people made me quite popular throughout my K-12 days. It even led to me breaking some barriers as I became the first African-American prom king and student council president in the history of my high school - accomplishments I attribute to the fact that I got along with everyone from the band geeks to the nerds to the jocks to the popular kids of all races and nationalities. And the fact that I wasn't allowed to go to house parties or date or attend sleep overs and didn't get my driver's license until the night of my Senior Prom or have my own car somehow didn't dampen my social prospects.

Privilege 7 - Full Academic Scholarship: Late in my senior year of high school I received notice that due to my PSAT scores I was being offered a full ride 5 year scholarship to attend HBCU Florida A&M University. I accepted the scholarship, completed school, got a great job, and never had to pay back loans or go into debt for my education. On top of that, because I chose the School of Business and Industry (SBI), I was put on the fast track to corporate success due to the professional development program, paid internships with Fortune 500 companies, and innovative curriculum that enabled me to achieve an MBA by the age of 25. This gave me a significant experiential and financial leg up over other college graduates and led to me never having to be stressed out over repaying student loans.

Privilege 8 - Fast Track Management Development Program: Because of my academic track record and positive and extensive real world work experience I got accepted into a Management Associates Program that only selected 10 MBA graduates each year to be disproportionately invested in and developed into a manager faster than others entering the company at the same time. I got access to and visibility with senior company stakeholders, choice projects, and a six figure salary coming out of college. I also received a two year window to succeed when most employees only get the 90 day probationary period to demonstrate their wares.

Privilege 9 - Working for Leaders, Not Bosses: The vast majority of my early managers were truly leaders and not ego-driven bosses. This included Brian Cook, the Pfizer District Manager who I worked for in Detroit, MI; Jim Booker, my beloved people-first manager at Zales; Tom Manos, who transformed my life by introducing me to Clifton Strengths at the age of 25; Mike McCann, my first real corporate manager who molded me into a leader; Ray Russo a true ally who regularly promoted African-American talents who worked for him; and Sean McNicholas who told me that no matter how I performed when I was working as a Business Unit director in Brazil I would have a home back in the US. These six straight white males helped me become the corporate leader that I am today.

Privilege 10 - Living Overseas: At the end of 2012, a dear friend of mine, Andrew Miles (another straight white man) hired me to work with him in Turkey for a large global pharmaceutical company. Although I had already lived in Brazil for three and a half years by this point, there was still so much of the world I hadn't seen and experienced. Moving to the European/Islamic nation of Turkey and the epic cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, gifted me with culture agility, acceptance and appreciation of difference, and the confidence that comes with surviving and ultimately thriving in a foreign land. After two and a half years I moved to Indonesia for three and a half years and then back to Brazil for two more years. Travel expanded my horizons and transformed my people acumen as well.

Privilege 11 - Severance: Some people work their entire lives for a company that never gets bought - which means they subsist on the annual raise and merit increase cycle meanwhile contributing to a 401K that they won't be able to access for multiple decades. Others work for the company doing the acquiring which may create better job security but it doesn't provide any near term incremental boosts in finances. I have worked for two companies that were acquired by larger companies and because of my position at the moment of purchase was able to cash in major financial windfalls in the form of severance payouts. This has afforded me a level of financial freedom that has allowed me to live very comfortably.

When I reconcile my tremendous privilege, it is obvious that I owe as much or more than I have been given. I never allow myself to forget these myriad blessings because the moment I do, I will start abdicating my responsibility to those who haven't received a 10th of my good fortune. It also keeps me humble as I recognize that I had nothing to do with much of the advantages in this list. It is my strong belief that if each of us (but most especially) the most privileged of us, start listing off our entitlements, it will hopefully engender in us a sense of gratitude.

Gratitude leads to grace, grace leads to giving, giving leads to growth.

This is the essence of #allyship that we so desperately need today to build a more just, fair, equitable, open, and supporting world. This is the beginning of #thework. I challenge everyone reading this to reconcile your own privileges big and small and then make a daily commitment to recognize that just because your lived experience has bestowed upon you certain benefits - none of us is entitled to our apathy or biases or ignorance about the lived experiences of others. We all have to #leanin and learn to lead with l.u.v. - an acronym for listening harder, seeking to understand other perspectives, and validating what we learn by accepting these point of views as factual and in many instances traumatic, and showing up as allies to assist in eradicating these painpoints so that we all can commence on a new shared experience of unity, freedom, and belonging.

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